Whistler’s Mother: Portrait of an Extraordinary Life

Daniel E. Sutherland and Georgia Toutziari. Yale Univ, $25 (288p) ISBN 978-0-300-22968-4
The austere, pious, and unassuming Anna McNeill Whistler (1804–1881) depicted in her son James Whistler’s most famous painting, Arrangement in Grey and Black No. 1 (1871), doesn’t resemble the real person at all, according to history professor Sutherland (Whistler: A Life for Art’s Sake) and art historian Toutziari. Their new book serves as an overdue corrective to the conventional image of Whistler mother as a passive emblem of maternal domesticity, and reveals her as vibrant, adventurous, and a force in other people’s destinies. Whistler was a charitable matriarch who relied on her fervent Episcopal faith to guide and steady her family through the Civil War, illness (she buried five sons and her husband), and bankruptcy. She was frequently on the move, changing residences and visiting relatives; the family resided in Russia while her husband built a railroad, and later in England, where she helped manage her artist son’s burgeoning career and lascivious lifestyle by fending off unwanted distractions and seeking patrons and commissions for him through a combination of friendship and charm. Using diaries and letters, the authors adequately portray Whistler as a candid woman who led an unconventional life while remaining steadfast in her devotion to her children. Without getting too bogged down in detail, this succinct biography gives a misunderstood mother her proper due. (Mar.)
Reviewed on: 01/29/2018
Release date: 03/01/2018
Genre: Nonfiction
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